Make Virtual Meetings Matter

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Copyright © 2015, 2020 by Paul Axtell Cover and internal design © 2020 by Sourcebooks Cover design by Jackie Cummings Cover images © iNueng/Getty Sourcebooks, the colophon, and Simple Truths are registered trademarks of Sourcebooks. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means including information storage and retrieval systems—except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews—without permission in writing from its publisher, Sourcebooks. This publication is designed to provide accurate and authoritative information in regard to the subject matter covered. It is sold with the understanding that the publisher is not engaged in rendering legal, accounting, or other professional service. If legal advice or other expert assistance is required, the services of a competent professional person should be sought.—From a Declaration of Principles Jointly Adopted by a Committee of the American Bar Association and a Committee of Publishers and Associations All brand names and product names used in this book are trademarks, registered trademarks, or trade names of their respective holders. Sourcebooks is not associated with any product or vendor in this book. Published by Simple Truths, an imprint of Sourcebooks P.O. Box 4410, Naperville, Illinois 60567-4410 (630) 961-3900 This edition is based on Make Meetings Matter, originally published in 2020 in the United States of America by Simple Truths, an imprint of Sourcebooks.

Contents Front Cover Title Page Copyright Preface Virtual Meetings: A New Skill to Master Introduction Chapter 1: Choose the Perspective: This Matters Chapter 2: Master Effective Conversation Chapter 3: Create Supportive Relationships Chapter 4: Decide What Matters and Who Cares Chapter 5: Design Each Conversation Chapter 6: Lead Meetings Like a Pro Chapter 7: Participate to Have Impact Chapter 8: Dealing with Ineffective Behavior in Meetings Conclusion Get Started Acknowledgments About the Author Back Cover

For Amy, Jesse, and Cindy.

I wrote this book for everyone who wants to be really good, for everyone who wants their organization to be successful, and especially for those who have endured countless meetings wishing they would be better and not quite sure what to do about them.

You and your meetings can be beyond good.

Preface This book is about getting twenty people in a meeting, whether virtual or in person, to feel like five friends having a conversation over coffee. Not easy, but doable. As a manager, would it make a difference if employees looked forward to your meetings? As an individual, would it help if you knew that every meeting on your schedule this week would add momentum to your priorities and projects? Meetings are a competitive edge for every organization that gets them right. And for individuals, the ability to lead and participate effectively in meetings is at the heart of having influence in an organization. Like anything worthy of mastery, it takes patience, persistence, and practice to take your meetings from ordinary to extraordinary. But it will not take years. Choosing a single thing to focus on in your next five to ten meetings will produce immediate change. This book sets you on the right trajectory. In three months, your meetings can be dramatically different.

Virtual Meetings: A New Skill to Master Passion, drive, and knowledge will not set you apart. The ability to convene a small group of people in a meeting and make progress afterward will. —­Paul Axtell

I remember working with a leadership team in Brazil for four days. At one point, they asked if I could help them with their virtual communications since they only got together physically twice a year. I then asked them to conduct a two-­hour meeting so I could observe. At the end, I told them they had no chance virtually because they were awful when they were in the same room! We were close friends at that point, so everyone laughed and agreed with me. Virtual meetings require the same foundational meeting practices and skills as in-person meetings, but take more time and intention. Can virtual meetings ever be as good as face-­to-­face meetings? Yes, or at least very close. We can compare it to theater or sporting events: watching on television isn’t quite the same experience as being in the audience or in the stands. But the convenience of television is obvious, and instant replay is amazing. Working remotely offers clear benefits for both individuals and organizations, and there will be other benefits that occur over time—­some we can’t even imagine. Progress on goals, initiatives, and projects may actually be enhanced by virtual meetings if the conversations are more focused and stay on track. What I’m more concerned about is our ability to build relationships and allow people to feel connected to each other and the organization when meetings happen online rather than in person. Clearly attention, listening, connection, and empathy occur more easily when we are in the same physical space. As the technology and our capacity to be authentic and expressive expand, however, meeting virtually might be really, really close to being in the same room. The best individuals and managers will figure out how to make it work. Through the Q & A below, you will find some best practices and goals to keep in mind as you navigate the virtual meeting landscape. Beyond efficiency, our goal in having a meeting (virtually or in person) is always to spark remarkable conversations. Let’s start there.

How can remarkable conversations be supported while also holding an agenda? Conversations become special when the energy in the room, virtual or literal, escalates. You can feel it. People are more spirited and candid. There is a back-­and-­forth that is out of the ordinary. Effective leaders recognize these moments and let the conversation unfold. Temporarily, keeping to the agenda and controlling the timeline take a back seat. Riding the energy wave allows for remarkable things to happen.

In and out of meetings, what support can companies provide to remote workers? Start by supplying everyone with the technology required to connect and participate fully. Then ask people what else they need. Acknowledge the steep learning curve as everyone gets used to new meeting platforms and practices. Overall, you want your employees and meeting attendees to know that there is flexibility to be had—­not just words of support, but support in action.

Outside of a set agenda and a conference line, what tools will most benefit teams in a virtual space? There are dozens of possible platforms out there to facilitate virtual meetings, whether by conference call or video chat. A quick online search will reveal any number of reviewers’ opinions on the subject. In terms of the human element, designate one person to watch the time associated with each agenda item, another to document decisions made and tasks assigned for the meeting summary, and another to notice when someone hasn’t spoken and ask if they want to add anything. Giving others these tasks frees the leader to hone in on each person’s contribution.

Group size for each meeting seems more important than ever; what should we be doing? In face-­to-­face meetings, eight is the number where thoughtful design and leading become critical. Try for five in virtual meetings. Don’t give up if you have larger groups, just realize it takes more preparation and skillful leading.

How can I improve virtual meetings where I am the leader/host? First, in all meetings, virtual or not, success is primarily a function of the leader. Second, know your audience and vary your style to match who is there, the size of the group, and the urgency required. In addition: •

Develop a set of guidelines for your group that can serve as best virtual meeting practices. Provide a brief reminder at the start of each meeting.

Ask for what you need to lead the meeting effectively. Then ask the group if there is anything they need to say or ask before you begin. Don’t start without clearing your concerns and theirs.

Check in with the group at times during the meeting to both gauge how the technology is working and broaden participation on some topics. Call on people, but just do it gently.

How can I improve a meeting as a participant/ when I am not the host? Fight the tendency to disengage or be less active. Ask questions for clarity and to provide colleagues a runway to expand on their comments. Speaking up benefits everyone. Use the chat feature to recognize contributions, clarify comments, verify facts, and nail down actions.

How can we recreate some of that connective experience (making sure everyone feels heard, for example) when we are not in room and using tools like eye contact? In-­person meetings provide a sense of intimacy, connection, and empathy that is difficult to replicate in video. It’s much easier in person to provide the attentive listening and presence that create the psychological safety people need to engage and participate fully. To compensate, emphasize verbal practices, such as acknowledging people by name, inviting people to share their views, building on their views, and checking in with people before leaving

a topic. Use the features of the technology, such as chat windows and polling, to supplement the physical cues people provide. You can go a step further with two practices designed to make connections: 1. Set a protocol that the meeting conference lines are open ten minutes before the meeting starts. Be online to great people and interact with them. 2. Set aside the first ten minutes of the meeting for people to connect and share what is going on in their community, family, or projects. Even a small slice of time—­say ten minutes in a two-­hour meeting—­will build connections.

My team is missing the social aspects of work. What can I do to support them? In response to the simple statement “I miss being able to stand up in my cubicle and spend a few minutes talking to my colleagues,” one manager I work with set up thirty-­minute “check-­in” conversations twice a week that are voluntary with no agenda. Sometimes they last ten minutes, sometimes more. Sometimes it’s talking about football. Sometimes it’s business related. The point is, if you honor everyone’s comments and experience, you’ll figure out a creative way to address their concerns. Another manager set up an ongoing chat window during scheduled work hours for employees who were seeking an opportunity to interact. This is certainly a time to: admit we don’t have all the answers, listen to employees, and learn from the world.

Right now, many people are feeling the loss of the in-­person experience and focusing on the negatives. What are some positives that virtual meetings have over in-­person meetings? Good things come out of disruptions—­we are forced to learn and adapt. These seem to be the benefits that are emerging: •

Control over our lives: Who doesn’t love to work in blue jeans, walk the dog in the

middle of the day, or even run an errand? We all love the freedom that comes with having a bit more control over our schedule, and most of us accept the responsibility that comes with that freedom. •

A new appreciation for employees who have been on family leave or working remotely: New insights and empathy for what they have been dealing with all along will lead to more intention around including, consulting, and informing them in the future.

Clarity about getting the technology right for everyone: Up until now, we’ve made sure the technology works in the boardroom—­especially for directors who have been dialing in—­with all other employees basically left to their own resources.

A genuine interest in how we can stay connected and avoid just transactional relationships: We are in this together, and we’ll figure it out.

An openness to more people working from home: In fact, the stigma associated with working from home might disappear once this is over. Of course, it will still be the responsibility of everyone who does work remotely to be so good that management never worries about loss of productivity.

In a remote business environment, what is the most important role for senior managers? I think it’s holding regular Q & A sessions without presentations or prepared remarks. Simply answer any and all questions and stay with it until there are no more. Start with a wide-­open invitation where you earnestly offer your time and support. For example: “What would you like to know? Is there anything at all about which you are curious or wondering or anxious about? Really, anything! I’ve got plenty of time, and this is your session, so please ask.” Done right, these sessions will accomplish two things: First, they’ll provide transparency and take away the sources of mischief that can appear when people have questions or doubts or hear rumors. Second, employees will feel connected. In times of uncertainty, it is especially important that they have a relationship with key managers. To ask a question and be answered in a polite, thoughtful, direct, and complete way is a gift to the person who asks, the leader who answers, and everyone else in the audience.

What if I need a break from virtual meetings? An old-­fashioned phone call works! Actually, tone of voice is a more accurate feedback mechanism than interpreting facial expressions or body language. Seeing each other on a screen is one more possible distraction. Small meetings, such as groups of three or four, are also easy to manage on the phone.

When people start to zone out in meetings, what are some tactics that work virtually to recognize that behavior and put an end to it? First, lead a good meeting. Start, get the work done, and get out. Second, ask people to let you know if they are having issues concentrating on this meeting or virtual meetings in general and propose a solution.

How do you expect meeting practices to be impacted after the pandemic? Many of us were not thinking about improving our meetings skills before this dive into virtual meetings occurred. Now that we are in a steep learning curve, lots of good things will happen. I expect more timeliness, less multitasking, better conversation management, and even more directness in increasing participation levels to occur as a result.

Which chapters in the book will be most useful to readers who want to be better at virtual meetings? I would start with chapter 6, Lead Meetings like a Pro, and chapter 7, Participate to Have Impact, so you know how to both support the person who called the meeting and to be effective in your own participation. After that, each chapter speaks to specific meeting needs, so either start from the beginning or move to where your needs are most relevant. In order to further support readers with this virtual meetings edition of my bestselling meetings book, Make Meetings Matter, I have also added key takeaways to the end of each chapter that are specific to virtual meetings. By the end of your read, you should have a complete toolset to practice in every meeting.

Introduction The ability to set up a conversation, manage the conversation, and wrap it up effectively is the missing piece in meetings everywhere. While most people think passion, knowledge, and drive are all they need to succeed, through my long career in organizational management, I am here to tell you: it is your meeting skills that will set you apart. Collectively, any organization that establishes a deep capacity for excellent meetings will have an edge in execution, accomplishment, and engagement. Despite solutions being quite simple at their core, meetings continue to be a source of irritation and frustration—especially when people end up taking on additional work to make up for time lost in unproductive meetings. These are the six most common complaints: 1. My boss is terrible at leading meetings. 2. A few people dominate the conversations. 3. The group is too large to get anything done. 4. We just pass along information. We don’t talk about real issues. 5. Too many people are distracted by devices, particularly in virtual meetings, when everything on their screen is right there. 6. We don’t make progress between meetings. The online meeting scheduling firm Doodle found these to be the most prevalent irritants:

Biggest Irritations in Meetings*

9%: People taking notes on laptops

21%: People who don’t contribute to the discussion

24%: People eating

46%: People who talk about nothing for long periods of time

49%: Arriving late or leaving early

49%: People who don’t listen to others

50%: People who interrupt others

55%: Taking phone calls or texting

*The Doodle State of Meetings Report 2019, from research with 6,528 professional in the UK, Germany, and the USA

Given this broad list of complaints, it’s no wonder most people have given up hope that things could be different. Good people are no longer preparing for meetings or participating in ways that add value. They have moved to the sidelines. This book will provide you the tools to solve each of these complaints. It’s time to move meetings from frustrating to effective to remarkable. The ideas in this book work, and their impact will reach far beyond your meetings. The foundational ideas on perspective, conversation, and relationship will change your interactions with your family and colleagues and impact almost everything you do. If we can make each of our conversations richer in terms of engagement, attention, candor, and respect, our meetings will improve.

Chapter 1: Choose the Perspective: This Matters When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change. —Dr. Wayne Dyer


The first step on the journey toward effective meetings begins with choosing empowering new perspectives. Much of this book focuses on the techniques and practices required to make your meetings better. Unfortunately, even the best tactics cannot overcome a disempowering perspective. We all operate with certain perspectives in place—values we learned from our parents, from our coaches, from friends, or from lines in movies or books that resonated with our thoughts about ourselves or about life. Such phrases remind us of who we want to be or how we want to respond to life. Here are two that have stuck with me: •

From Adam Wainwright, St. Louis Cardinals pitcher: “You fall into the trap of being mediocre. If you’re OK with being mediocre, then you’re going to be mediocre.”

From Sir Edmund Hillary, New Zealand mountaineer: “People do not decide to become extraordinary. They decide to accomplish extraordinary things.”

These two broad perspectives point us forward. Simply noticing where we have settled for mediocre meetings and choosing to get on the path of being extraordinary will bring immediate change. In addition, throughout the book are perspectives that, if chosen and embraced, will impact your group’s conversations. For example, as the person calling the meeting, you are responsible for the time and talent of those invited; do not disrespect it. Or, as a participant, your participation could make all the difference in the outcomes and experience of this meeting.

Perspectives shape our experience— of life and meetings

A perspective for everyday life: Treat each person, each conversation, and each moment as though they matter This is perhaps the most powerful perspective for shaping a positive experience in many aspects of life and work. You may be familiar with Tolstoy’s story “The Three Questions” from What Men Live By: 1. Where is the most important place? 2. When is the most important time? 3. Who is the most important person?

The answers are, of course: 1. Right here. 2. Right now. 3. The person you’re with. The point is to treat everything as though it matters and give your full attention to whatever you are doing and to whomever you are with right now. It’s easy to slip into dealing with certain tasks or situations mindlessly; we all do it. If you have been going through life this way, there is a tremendous upside to beginning to treat what you do as if it matters. If you are attentive and engaged in the moment, those around you will notice. In a world of devices and multitasking, attention is often fleeting. The key is to be present, attentive, and engaged. This is not a new idea. The adage “if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right” has been with us for a long time.

Adopting a new perspective changes behavior A research laboratory asked me to conduct interpersonal skills training for their security guards because of visitor complaints about how they’d been treated. Before I designed the training, I sat down with the guards and asked what they thought they needed. Their reactions were enlightening:

“No one told us about the complaints!” and “What do they want us to be, receptionists or security guards?” Then one guard said, “We can welcome people. We don’t need any training. Someone just needed to tell us that our job has two parts: provide security for the facility and make people feel like guests. We can do this.” Everyone agreed, and the complaints went to zero.

Find a new mindset for meetings Some of the most troubling perspectives for meetings are ones we have drifted into over time without thinking about it. If you pay attention, you’ll hear people expressing, almost without realizing it, a series of comments about meetings that are not positive. This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, and meetings are almost doomed from the start. Here are two perspectives that provide a refreshing starting point for meetings. First, meetings matter— they are high-leverage events at the heart of effective organizations. Second, choose ownership for each meeting you attend. On a recent visit to a corporate office building, I saw a series of images of employees with the phrase, “I own the moment.” This single phrase captures two powerful ideas: being present and being responsible. Each will have an impact if you apply them to meetings. For example, if everyone treated each meeting as if it were their own and joined it looking for what they might do to make it successful, your meetings would improve.

A final perspective: This shall be One of the fundamental variables in whether your meetings improve is how determined you are that they change. I love the term intention when it means “this shall be.” Intention is different from a New Year’s resolution, which tends to be treated as a wish—hoped for but quickly forgotten in the demands of daily life. Knowing you want something is not the same as being intentional about making it happen. This book shows you how to design, lead, and participate in meetings to make a difference. The question is, will you make it happen? It’s not that difficult. Just take it one idea at a time, one meeting at a time.


Slow down, do one thing at a time, and treat this person, this conversation, this activity as if it matters. Find a phrase that captures the new mindset you want for meetings. Collect seven phrases that help you to be at your best.

For virtual meetings, keep in mind: Choose the mindset that meetings are your work and worth your time and attention. Be considerate of the time and talent of your participants. Focus on being present. Reduce on-screen stimuli.

_____ If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude. —Maya Angelou, American poet

the conversation.

_____ Each person’s life is lived as a series of conversations. —Deborah Tannen, American linguistics professor

deeply, and resisting the urge to focus a conversation on our own views or experiences. These are important leadership skills in and out of meetings. 5. You’ll become valuable beyond your own group. If you become known in the organization as someone who can manage conversations effectively, you’ll likely be asked to help with other meetings. You may not be interested in becoming a professional facilitator, but even leading one or two meetings a month for other parts of the organization will build your network and knowledge of other functions. 6. You’ll contribute to your boss’s success and respect. Offering to design and lead the next meeting for your manager is a gift in several ways. Many managers simply don’t have the time to determine what needs to be on the agenda and how best to get the broad participation required for alignment. With you facilitating the discussion, the boss can be completely attentive without the distraction of keeping the conversation on track. And being able to focus intently allows the manager to pick up on the nuances people express, verbally and nonverbally, and to listen for the organizational perspective or any background the group needs. Beyond improving your own skills and advancing your career, getting better at running meetings will be dropping a pebble in the pond of ineffective meetings—it will ripple outward. When you begin to deliver meetings that people look forward to and benefit from, others will realize your organization is not doomed to have wasteful, ineffective meetings and may be inspired to follow your example.

Get started Whether you are the manager who calls meetings, a project leader who runs team meetings, or someone who attends meetings as a participant, the action items throughout this book will help make your conversations—and therefore your meetings—more effective. There is no need to implement every idea all at once. Meetings are plentiful. Deliberately choose where to put your attention in upcoming meetings. Find one idea that resonates with your own experience and work on it for two weeks or the next ten meetings. Once you have that idea working for you, find another. Just take it meeting by meeting, idea by idea. The first thing to do is to start and then watch your meetings become extraordinary.

How to start Here’s my list of ideas to begin working with: •

Notice who is not yet in the conversation and invite them to speak.

Keep the conversation on track; ask the group to help you do so.

Make sure each commitment has a completion date.

Start on time and end early.

Let people know what meeting practice you are working to improve.

_____ Try not. Do. Or do not. There is no try. —Yoda, The Empire Strikes Back

Acknowledgments There are three people without whom this book would not have happened. Gwil Evans was the first client who embraced the idea of designing meetings not only for outcomes, but also to change the experience of meetings for the participants. Cheryl McLean is a jack-of-all-trades editor who saw the possibility of a book that would be both useful and readable. Lastly, Cindy, my wife, has been helping me refine the ideas and my training programs for a very long time. We have debriefed more days of training and meetings than we can remember. From an idea point of view, I owe a great deal to Tim Gallwey, Michael Nichols, Dale Carnegie, Malcolm Gladwell, Geoff Colvin, and countless other authors and teachers who contributed to my thinking on individual and group effectiveness. I’m indebted to the clients who asked questions and put these ideas into practice where they could be tested and refined. My thanks go also to Amy Gallo at Harvard Business Review, whose incisive editing helped me strengthen my message about meetings since the original book was published.

About the Author Paul Axtell provides consulting and personal effectiveness training to a wide variety of clients, from Fortune 100 companies and universities to nonprofit organizations and government agencies. With an engineering degree from South Dakota School of Mines and an MBA from Washington University in St. Louis, Paul’s early career was spent in manufacturing, engineering, and management. For the last twenty years, Paul’s focus has been devoted to designing and leading programs that enhance individual and group performance, whether for line workers and admin staff at a manufacturing plant or regional managers and CEOs in global corporations. He has gathered decades of insights into a succinct collection of fifteen strategies in a small but powerful booklet, Being Remarkable. It is the centerpiece of the Being Remarkable series, a training program complete with a facilitation guide for trainers as well as a personal workbook for individuals or small groups to work through independently. The series also includes access to Paul’s video introductions to the journey toward being remarkable as well as to each strategy. His book Meetings Matter: 8 Powerful Strategies for Remarkable Conversations offers a deeper dive into improving meeting competence. It won numerous awards, including the Nonfiction, Benjamin Franklin, Eric Hoffer, and Nautilus Book Awards, and is the foundation of this text. A new edition was published recently of his book 10 Powerful Things to Say to Your Kids: Creating the Relationship You Want with the Most Important People in Your Life, which applies the concepts behind his work to the special relationships between parents and children of all ages. It was named Best Parenting Book of 2012 and has since been translated into Korean, Vietnamese, Chinese, Arabic, French, and Spanish. Paul lives with his wife, Cindy, in Minneapolis and Phoenix.